The secretary of state would not give a date for reopening, but ruled out schools opening during the summer holidays as a way of helping pupils who have missed out on education to catch up.
Questioned by the education select committee on Wednesday, Williamson told MPs: “We recognise that the idea of schools all returning on day one with the full complement of pupils is not realistic or practical.
“I do expect schools to be opened in a phased manner. I also intend to be giving schools as much notice as possible.”
There has been continuing speculation about when schools might reopen, and whether older year groups, including pupils in their final year of primary school and those in the middle of GCSE and A-level courses could be among the first to be brought back into schools as they might benefit most.
Asked which pupils might return first, the education secretary said the government was looking at best practice in other countries where schools are already beginning to reopen. He said a sub-group from the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) advising the government on its response to the pandemic had been set up to focus solely on issues surrounding school reopening.
“It is incredibly important that we get the right balance in terms of actually making sure that we create an environment that is good to learn in but also that is a safe environment for people to both work in and learn in as well,” he told MPs.
The education secretary faced persistent questioning about the impact of school closures on the most disadvantaged pupils from committee chair, Conservative MP Robert Halfon, who warned of a “potential cascade of mounting social injustice that could last a decade”.
Only small numbers of children classed as vulnerable by the government have taken up school places kept open for them during the course of the coronavirus crisis, and research has suggested many children from disadvantaged backgrounds are accessing little if any online learning.
Williamson said the government had put in £100m worth of investment in equipment and IT support for children disadvantaged by the digital divide. During the course of the hearing it emerged however that the promised 200,000 laptops would not start to arrive in schools until the end of next month, with the majority delivered in June.
The government’s free school meal voucher scheme, set up to try to ensure that the poorest children do not go hungry during the crisis, also came in for sharp criticism from MPs who were concerned about long delays and “deeply frustrated” headteachers who were spending “hours and hours” trying to access the Edenred ordering system.
Williamson acknowledged schools had faced challenges because of the high level of demand. “We’ve been doing everything we can to support them in terms of being able to get these vouchers out as rapidly as possible.”
The education secretary reiterated plans for an autumn series of what he described as “shortened” exams for pupils unhappy with their grades, which will this year be calculated largely on teacher assessment as exams have been cancelled. There have been reports that some headteachers are opposed, arguing that it would be “totally impractical”.